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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Phony Wars

Remember you read it here first. As it turns out, the ubiquitous Lee Anderson M.P. is a scion of ancient nobility, the youngest son of the tenth Duke of Chalfont: Lord Lee by name, and lordly by nature. Lord Lee first honed his histrionic skills as a schoolboy at Harrow, where he acted with Sherlock’s Bandicoot Cabbagepatch in numerous productions. Later, as a member of the Cambridge Footlights, he perfected his portrayal of working-class northern stereotypes in revues such as Flat Cap, Tripe and Onions (Mostly Tripe) and Strike that Miner.

The above paragraph is as true as anything the BBC is likely to tell you, which is to say that I made it all up. It does occur to me every time I see the atrocious Anderson that he appears to be a middle-class person’s idea of what a working-class person is probably like, a Monty Python parody of a curmudgeonly Yorkshireman (though he is actually from Nottinghamshire). Those who detest him are, predictably, accused of snobbery, but the real snobbery is surely to assume that someone like this is representative of the working class.

Anderson’s primary role in public life is to present the public with a succession of dead cats. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, which has been a lynchpin of the Conservative electoral strategy for some years, a dead cat is a distraction. It was the diabolical Lynton Crosby, I believe, who came up with the idea. People are discussing some issue which might lead them to the conclusion that the government consists entirely of corrupt, mendacious fools. Before they can reach this conclusion, you barge your way into their midst and fling a dead cat on the table, crying: “Well, blow me, look at this: a dead cat.” They immediately begin to discuss the dead cat, and any trains of thought that might have been going somewhere are derailed.

The news is full of dead cats every day, few of them deader and more moth-eaten than Anderson’s much-discussed support for the death penalty. When did you last hear anyone else even discussing the death penalty? Do you think that, in working men’s clubs throughout the north of England, men who formerly worked are saying: “You know what I think would get the country back on its feet? Hanging, that’s what. They’ll be needing executioners…”

Perhaps the best response to the death penalty argument is to point out that, whether you are theoretically for or against capital punishment, the British state is now so calamitously corrupt and incompetent that it could not manage to order some rubber gloves for doctors and nurses without wasting billions of pounds and leaving front-line medical staff standing around dressed in bin-bags. I don’t think any institution that forms part of this failed state, from parliament to the judiciary, is ready to make decisions about whether people can go on living or not. At least this is a position which, instead of dividing us into hangers and non-hangers, circumvents the dead cat and returns to the topic of real urgency, the crisis in British democracy.

The culture wars are phony wars. Perhaps the strangest example this year has been the argument about whether Henry VIII was disabled. The right-wing media line up in a fury to point out how strong and active the young king was. The left-wingers ferociously retort that Henry was morbidly obese in later life, and used crutches and even a wheelchair after his jousting accident in 1536, when his leg was crushed beneath the (presumably quite considerable) weight of an armoured horse. Is there even an argument here? Henry VIII was not disabled, until he was. Captain Obvious to the rescue once again.

How about Jeremy Clarkson and the Duchess of Sussex? Surely you must care about the public bickering of these two vacuous multi-millionaires? As a crusader against racism and misogyny, you have to mount your white horse and champion the incessant whining of the Sussexes. As a defender of free speech you need to protect Clarkson’s right to be overpaid for spewing vitriolic drivel. Remember how heroic he was in standing up to the tyranny of the state during lockdown? No, neither do I.

In these days of whipped-up media frenzy, not caring is an act of political radicalism. It is also a skill that requires a certain amount of practice. I try to make it a rule not to care about at least three things before breakfast. The result is that now, my apathy is so well-developed that even on a chilly February evening, as the weekend draws to a close, I am simultaneously indifferent to so many things that you wouldn’t believe me if I listed them, which I won’t, because I don’t care enough.

Perhaps you will object that some of the culture war issues really are important. Women should have their own spaces, and male rapists should not be placed in women’s prisons. The migrant crisis, whatever you think about it, is a real problem, and is causing misery for a great many people. The essential point here, which is continually obscured by factional bickering, is that the government benefits from its own incompetence in handling such situations. This is particularly true in the case of migration. Filling cheap hotels in the poorest areas of the country with recently arrived immigrants is a stupid thing to do, and it is bound to cause civil unrest. The government is then able to use the resulting anger and violence to set different groups of people, all of whom it has treated badly, against each other.

Distract and divide is the strategy. Set people arguing about the death penalty, or transgender people, or migrants, or anything other than the rottenness of the politicians who gesticulate wildly at the dead cat with one hand while they steal our wealth and our freedom with the other. It will not be easy to stop them from doing this, but looking in the right direction is at least a start.

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